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1999 NCC News Archives

Cambodian Government Honors CWS

Dec. 22, 1999, NEW YORK CITY ---- Twenty years ago, when Phnom Penh lay in ruins after years of war and Cambodian people were in the grip of widespread famine, representatives from several non-governmental agencies flew in to assess humanitarian needs.

"There was no electricity and no water, and the relief workers fanned out in the city then got back on the plane to bring back reports to their agencies," recalled the Rev. Dr. Rodney Page, Executive Director of Church World Service (CWS), the relief and development arm of the National Council of Churches (NCC). "But one representative stayed behind and lived there for six months: Perry Smith of Church World Service and CWS is still there."

Church World Service was among 10 NGOs honored at a ceremony held in The Chaktomuk Hall in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 18, during which Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen highlighted the "close partnership and strong solidarity which exists between the Royal Government of Cambodia and the NGO community."

In attendance were representatives from the 10 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Dr. Page, Ms. Linda Hartke and Mr. Howard Jost of Church World Service. Ms. Hartke served as CWS Country Director in Cambodia from 1992-1997 and is currently CWS Director of Programs and Operations. Mr. Jost is the current CWS Country Director in Cambodia.

Dr. Page helped give the traditional offerings to monks in a morning ceremony and handed the customary flowers to traditional court dancers in the afternoon ceremony. Ms. Hartke shared remembrances from Lonnie Turnipseed, former CWS Southern Asian Director, who told of innovative projects like recruiting veterinarians through partner churches in Cuba to help organize and train staff in Cambodia in a Veterinary Department. Ms. Hartke also looked to the future, saying, "Cambodian villagers, though still among the poorest in the world, live in hope. There is pride in what they have accomplished and dignity as they tell their story."

Prime Minister Hun Sen praised the past and continuing humanitarian work of the NGOs, employing a Cambodian saying, "a good friend singled out during hardship." He noted that not only did the agencies provide direct service and aid, but served as an alternative conduit for international diplomacy since for many years the Khmer Rouge occupied the nation's seat at the United Nations.

Today, CWS continues to support projects as varied as community development, animal health and production, and mine clearance and awareness. According to Ms. Hartke, who visited several projects during her recent visit, things have definitely improved.

"I told the Cambodians I visited that I am like the wayward aunt who has been away for several years and returns to say, 'My, how you've grown,'" Ms. Hartke said. "I find that the standard of living is improving, with electricity and water improved and access to education continuing to increase. There is now glass in windows, which wasn't true for so many years." Perhaps the most remarkable improvement Ms. Hartke noted was in the security situation. "We were actually invited to a community meeting that took place after dark. That would never have happened in the past."

At the same time, Ms. Hartke said, "The gap between rich and poor is increasing, with more evidence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It is remarkable the number of BMWs you now see in Phnom Penh."

Also, though things have improved economically, there are still sociopolitical strides that need to be made. "The root issue now is rule of law," Ms. Hartke said. "There needs to be a functioning legislature, executive bodies and an independent judiciary. We are working with staff and local partners to encourage this idea of building a democratic infrastructure along with the physical infrastructure."

For instance, Church World Service projects include the election of village development committees. These bodies follow democratic principles to decide on the top development priorities of the village. Self Help Groups allow technical and organizational skills to be transferred to local volunteer workers.

Just as it did when Perry Smith first set foot in Cambodia in 1979, CWS continues to put "humanitarian spirit above political considerations," as Prime Minister Hun Sen said of the NGOs in his speech. To the NGOs, he said, "You all are both witnesses and participants in the tremendous efforts displayed by a strong and unexhausted will, to work hand in hand with the Cambodian people for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of a country ravaged by wars, genocide, isolation and embargo."

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